For the past several years, fellow Michigan adoptees who were born after World War II have contacted me seeking help. They want what they are entitled to as a birthright and under core human rights principles of international law: their original birth certificates (OBCs), held in secret, by the state of Michigan.
The number of queries I received from adoptees increased in the last year, since I won a nearly three-decade-old contest with the state to give me my original birth certificate and published my story about that victory on my website.
Because of these requests, I am publishing a short guide that may help some of the thousands of fellow adoptees born in Michigan deprived of their equal rights by Michigan’s discriminatory and harmful adoption laws. To navigate this system, adoptees will need to deal with state courts and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS). That agency overseas the state’s public health bureaucracy and has ultimate authority for adoptees’ official vital records—including their original birth documents.
This guide focuses on Michigan adoptees born between May 28, 1945 and September 12, 1980. I was born during this time. According to the state’s website, “For those adoptions that occurred between May 28, 1945 and September 12, 1980, the release of the original birth certificate is contingent upon a court order.” As an adoptee seeking your OBC, that means you are almost certainly going to court, and it will not be easy. More on that shortly.
This 35-year span defined by law was not an accident. These were the boom years for adoption, when single women who became pregnant were pressured by society and many powerful medical, social work, and religious groups to give up millions of infants through the late 1970s. Thus the law intentionally harms the biggest pool of adopted citizens from the state by restricting their right to know who they are and their family ancestry and medical history.
Getting a Court Order: An Uphill Slog through a Hostile Environment
Those born before May 28, 1945 or after September 12, 1980 still face legal barriers. Read this summary of state law, published on the Adoptee Rights Law Center website. Greg Luce, an adoptee rights advocate who runs this website, elegantly describes Michigan’s convoluted system this way: “Michigan has such a confusing and complex system that only lawyers or those invested in such a complicated bureaucratic framework could fully comprehend it. To seek an OBC in Michigan you must 1) apply through an agency or court, which 2) forwards a clearance request form to the state’s “central adoption registry,” which 3) searches the registry and then 3) returns a clearance reply form to the court or agency that 4) is used to inform the adoptee that 5) a birth parent has denied any release of information (and the OBC is therefore unavailable) or that 6) a birth parent agrees to the release of information, upon which 7) the adoptee may obtain a copy of the clearance reply form and may then 7) supply the clearance reply form to the state registrar, which 8) issues a non-certified copy of the original birth certificate to the adoptee. Oh, if you were born between 1945 and 1980, this whole mechanism doesn’t even apply to you. Like other donut hole states, if you fall into that hole you need a court order to get your OBC.”
Michigan’s Communications to Adoptees Seeking an OBC:
You can read a succinct summary of the process published by the Adoptee Rights Coalition. The state also provides a short summary, which does not address how to navigate court order requests for adoptions that occurred between May 28, 1945 and September 12, 1980.
Key Points for Michigan Adoptees to Consider Before Beginning Court Advocacy for OBCs:
1. Current laws in Michigan, and the way its laws and vital records systems function today, are intended to prevent most Michigan adoptees from getting their original birth documents—forever. Remember that always. I will say that again: Remember that always. The political and legal systems governing adoption laws cause real harm to adoptees and deny them their basic human rights. You must be realistic how this plays out statewide and nationally. The laws vary by state. You cannot afford ignorance of the system or the players who control it. You must educate yourself about this reality. Know your friends and especially your opponents in your effort to achieve equal rights and your OBC.
2. No one will help you who works for theMDHSS, the state’s public health agency that controls your birth records. You can ask them for help, but you will not get it. The agency has an adversarial relationship with adoptees. In fact, you must be prepared to fight them, even once you get your court order—if you get one. They may even attempt to delay the release of your original birth certificate once presented with a judge’s ruling. This happened to me. See my FAQs also.
3. TheMichigan Central Adoption Registry is a mostly unaccountable bureaucracy of one employee (Connie Stevens; email@example.com) with no regulatory oversight. Do not contact it. See Luce’s description above regarding its mandate. Its website states it “is accessed by the court or agency; individual adopted persons do not contact the Registry.” This office does not answer phone calls, but may return one. Expect no help, even if you deserve it and need it.
4. The mediamay not be sympathetic to you, unless you have some emotional and tear-jerking reunion story. Overall, the media has a tepid interest in adoptee rights and in the past has viewed them in a discriminatory way—sometimes portraying them as uppity bastards who are not thankful they were taken in by loving families, etc. See the adoptee rights group Bastard Nation’s essay on this harmful stereotype. You can try to enlist the media, but do not assume the media will be a natural ally in the court of public opinion. That said, you should engage them, and you may find an ally in their ranks. Always try, and try again.
5. Remember, this takes time. You must give yourself anywhere from three months and much longer. You need to file your paperwork, advocate and push a court to set up a date, have your court date, and then submit, hopefully, your court order to Michigan Vital Records for your original birth certificate (OBC). You are running a marathon, not an 800-meter race. Stay focused on the end goal, always.
6. Rely on yourself. This is a personal journey. Most of us will do it alone. Most of us are not wildly rich and cannot afford to hire people to do unpleasant and tedious advocacy work. I encourage you not to seek help from any so-called confidential intermediaries or social workers. (Please avoid a Michigan confidential intermediary named Darryl Royal–he is not a real adoptee rights advocate.) There are some true legal advocates out there who work on cases. I suggest contacting the Adoptee Rights Law Center for possible tips if you really have a strong case needing litigation.
Starting Your Court Order Request:
Adoptees in the donut hole years need to find the court of jurisdiction for adoption records requests. For Wayne County/Detroit, where I was born, it is the Family-Juvenile Division of the Third Judicial Circuit Court of Michigan. Its address and contact information is: Third Judicial Circuit Court, Family Division Attention: Post Adoptions 1025 E. Forest Avenue Detroit, MI 48207-1098 Tel: (313) 224-5261; direct line: (313) 833-0032
Circuit courts likely have jurisdiction for issuing court orders for an adoptee. Find your court of jurisdiction here. This may be the hardest detail to figure out. The Third Judicial Circuit Court covers anyone born in Detroit, and adoptees there number in the thousands because that was home to Crittenton General Hospital, one of the nation’s largest maternity hospitals that facilitated adoptions for more than 30 years.
Download or request the instructions from the court in your jurisdiction, or contact that court for additional information. The instructions from the Family-Juvenile Division of the Third Judicial Circuit Court of Michigan are found online. Make a copy for your records.
Here are the instructions for Wayne County adoptees seeking to set up a court date and to petition a judge. Before you send your request in, make a copy of everything. Send your request certified mail. Make a cover letter listing everything you are sending and be courteous and professional. Show the court and judge that you are a professional and have your case in order. Show them you know the law and your rights.
You will need to send the following:
A $20 filing fee (as of 2016)
A copy of your photo identification
A copy of your adoptive birth certificate.
A completed Release of Information Authorization Adult Adoptee (FormFIA 1920). Include in the comments area on this form that you are requesting your original birth certificate (it’s a short box that says “additional comments”—make your pitch about your rights to your record).
If the birth certificate you are requesting is for a deceased, direct descendant, proof of the relationship and death are required (ie: death certificate, birth certificate, etc.).
Also, the above forms should be completed with the information regarding the adoptee.
Provide a written statement, no longer than a page, making your case why you deserve your birth record. This is your story, so only you can write it. Note, this is not required, but STRONGLY encouraged.
This article is a response to a recent newsletter flash I received from the adoption research and advocacy group called the Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI). The organization has suddenly proclaimed a bold new advocacy position and campaign on adoptee rights as a “human rights” issue.
I will make three key points about this new effort and how adoptees, the media, policy-makers, and supporters of adoptee rights should cautiously view this and all other efforts by groups who claim to promote legal rights for adopted persons, illegitimately born people, and people who call themselves bastards:
The institute’s new campaign seeking to become the champion of “human rights” for adoptees seeking their birth records must be viewed critically given the group’s track record and the way it is linked to the promotion of what some adoptees and reporters like Dan Rather call the “adoption industry.”
Authentic advocacy and scholarship on adoptee rights or any issue involves “walking the talk” and having what ordinary folks call “street cred.” For example, Florence Fisher, and the group she lead in the 1970s called the Adoptees’ Liberty Movement Association (ALMA), showed that when ALMA took a clear stand for adoptees by calling for the “free access to our original birth certificates and the records of our adoption” and went to court in New York in 1977 with a federal class action lawsuit, claiming adoptees had rights under the U.S. Constitution’s 13th and 14th amendments to their original birth records. They lost but their actions spoke volumes. You have to demonstrate what you believe through meaningful action, not fluffy words of cute social media memes.
My work in my upcoming book on my adoption experience and how U.S. adoption should be understood through a public health lens gives full credit to insightful writers and advocates, like Lauren Sabina Kneisly, who clearly define the real power systems involved in adoption and the political realities of being an adoptee and bastard. Real advocates and credible scholars acknowledge their sources and forebears. Those who only seek influence or power in any field will try to co-opt the work of real reformers.
Why I am Troubled by Donaldson Adoption Institute’s Co-opting of Adoptee Claims to Human Rights
My forthcoming memoir on the U.S. adoption experience makes clear I will not and do not appropriate or claim ownership of many breakthrough actions and ideas in the long struggle of adoptees to have equal rights of non-adopted people in the United States.
I praise and quote scholars like professors E. Wayne Carp and Elizabeth Samuels, who have documented how adoptees’ and birth parents’ legal access to original birth records was severely restricted by state legislatures and public health bureaucracies in the decades after World War II. (Also see my post on the topic of discrimination against adoptees.)
To ensure accuracy and authenticity with my readers, I give each and every parent, writer, activist, scholar, organization, and leader full credit for their contributions to changing current practices and thinking. I do that to acknowledge who has meaningfully contributed to our understanding of adoption as a political, health, public health, historic, sociological, biological, and advocacy issue.
I also seek to steer policy-makers, adoptees, and the media to credible and relevant data to correctly frame adoption as a human rights, public health, and legal issue. That is also called responsible scholarship and “walking the talk” in the advocacy arena.
Donaldson Adoption Institute’s Status on Adoptee Rights
One group I continue to have trouble with concerning legal advocacy is the Donaldson Adoption Institute (DAI). The New York-based group has published research by scholars on adoption. I cite some of their work in my book. I appreciate how they cited the health issues associated with denying adoptees their family history and a 2016 study on public perceptions of adoptees and adoption. I like that the group supports openness in adoption, but I am very troubled by this concept in the context of their work that appears to support adoption without changing laws or formally acknowledging past wrongs.
However, I do not endorse their work to date as being clear, mission-driven advocacy that seeks to address historic discrimination against adoptees or work that seeks to change laws to promote equality for all adoptees by giving every single living adoptee full and unfettered access to their records–as done in most developed nations.
I say this despite the group’s sudden new commitment under a questionable logo: “50 States. 1 Movement. Restore Adoptee Rights!” The group announced this publicly on May 17, 2017, through an email “special communication.”
I have yet to find in the institute’s work or website if the group acknowledges how other countries (England, Scotland, France, Germany, Denmark, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Israel, Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand, and Norway) have clear national laws that establish all adoptees’ legal right to their birth records or that the group suggests a policy solution proposal endorsing such an approach. (Please let me know if I missed something.)
The group’s diverse interests include topics like “promoting healthy identity formation in adoption,” transnational and biracial adoption issues, adoption by gay parents, and even counseling issues. While I find some of this work worthwhile for some groups, particularly transnational and bi-racial adoptees and their families, I am unconvinced still by what I see right now that the DAI can or ever will be a leader in fighting for real adoptee civil rights.
The group as recently as mid-2016 wasworking on another campaign (“transacton to transformation“), also with a catchy social media title, that urged changing adoption “to a more uniform and transformational process where everyone—expectant parents, first/birth parents, adopted persons and adoptive families and professionals—are better prepared and supported.” This in no way resembles a campaign focussed on ending discrimination against adoptees or challenging the real power structures who promote those views and profit by them. In many ways, this campaign is a contradiction to its newest effort that seemingly appropriates the concept of adoptee rights as “human rights.”
Any group that seeks to sustain this industry should not be a leader in promoting meaningful change. Actual change can be seen in the Australian adoption reconciliation efforts, where the national government formally apologized in 2013 to all birth mothers and adoptees for causing harm. The DAI does not recognize in a formal way this historic action as a solution—yet another red flag for me.
The DAI’s mission statement—not even clearly called out on its website—is also muddled and does not clearly state its top goal is a lasting legal remedy and equality for adoptees by law: “The Donaldson Adoption Institute’s mission is to provide leadership that improves laws, policies and practices—through sound research, education and advocacy—in order to better the lives of everyone touched by adoption.” That is not a mission to change laws or change how adoption is understood as a political system, now sustained and promoted by the Republican Party, evangelical Christians, and groups that profit from adoption as a business.
Now the DAI calls for a national campaign—not coincidentally one it states that it wants to lead. Its announcement tries to claim the mantle of unnamed reformers from the 1970s. Key advocates in legal reform from that era such as Florence Fisher did not entangle themselves in the “business of adoption.” Quite simply, the DAI lacks street cred to lead as measured by its own actions and deeds.
Because of this, I strongly suggest that all adoptees and advocates for adoption hit the pause button and determine for themselves if they wish to do the group’s online survey, now organized to support this effort. This appears to be a power grab on advocacy in the often petty and often frustrating world of advocacy among a mostly powerless group—adoptees.
Who Is “Entitled” to Claim Leadership on Adoptee Legal Rights?
Suddenly, the DAI is using the overarching policy goal of the adoptee advocacy group Bastard Nation, whose mission statement boldly calls for “the civil and human rights of adult citizens who were adopted as children.” For the record, I am not a member of any adoptee advocacy group, and I do not know anyone in Bastard Nation in person.
The DAI now claims: “The tangible negative consequences of denying adopted people their OBC are numerous and sobering. Yet the most severe outcome rests in the fact that a fundamental human right is being denied to an entire group of people.”
What’s more, the DAI has suddenly made statements and language never used before regarding the laws that deny adoptees equal treatment under the law and their birth records. “This is a human rights violation that creates inequality for an entire group of people,” the group writes. “Everyone should have the right to know the truth of his or her birth.”
This is great language, but I am deeply worried such views are not sustainable by a group that is so deeply embedded in a system where groups can make $30,000 or more promoting adoption. The sale of babies to adoption farms that lead to horrific infant death outcomes of bastard babies in the early 1900s in Baltimore is a warning of the dangers of turning infants into sellable commodities. Adoptee rights advocates should distance themselves entirely from anyone associated with this practice for historic and policy reasons alone, not to mention moral concerns.
My Communications with the Donaldson Adoption Institute
I am more troubled that the DAI is using language by groups like Bastard Nation and others. I also am confused that the group’s language strangely resembles legal arguments I shared with them in February and March 2016 by email. I wrote to the group then to ask them to define their advocacy views on the concept of adoptees’ rights to their records as a legal issue and as a human right, similar to how it is enshrined in the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.
(Author’s Note: My goal as I write this post is to forward this post to the DAI and ask if they wish to issue any rebuttal commentary as the form of a response on my blog, which I will publish in the spirit of promoting a vigorous public discussion of adoptee and legal rights issues.)
As of today, May 20, 2017, the DAI has not credited any group or scholar in its new campaign to become the lead group. This is not required, but its failure to acknowledge by name the groups and persons who have laid out the data and legal case for a human rights campaign for adoptees should be a red flag to all persons who believe the United States should have an identical national law like England granting all adoptees full rights to their birth records at the age of 18.
My Indebtedness to Adoptee Advocates and Words of Wisdom on Adoptee Rights Advocacy
In writing my book on the American Adoption experience, I encountered several leaders for adoptee rights who shared nearly identical views with me on the complex perspectives of the institution of adoption, the discriminatory treatment of adoptees and bastards, and the failure of current so-called advocacy groups to provide meaningful leadership to frame adoption as a legal and human rights issue that harms adoptees.
One fellow adoptee and writer I feel most aligned to is Lauren Sabina Kneisly. Her blog, Baby Love Child, appears to be on hiatus, but it provides a superb primer on how to decipher messaging on adoptee rights advocacy.
Her blog does not endorse any group, but acknowledges the work of groups like Bastard Nation.
Kneisly wisely urges adoptees and their supporters to be mindful of the words used by groups and advocates. In other words, don’t fall for astroturfing or greenwashing, which co-opt the words, emotions, and ideas of real reformers by those who seek to profit from the status quo and who may actually not want change at all.
Usually the proof is in both the words and also the deeds, and greenwashing can be very slick. If it’s good, and it often is by such sales personnel, your emotions will be exploited without your conscious awareness.
Therefore, consider Kneisly’s recommendation for judging street cred and moral legitimacy for adoptee advocacy groups. She suggests these criteria:
Do they understand their status as part of a broader class of people and refuse to leave others behind?
Do they have a clear and single-minded focus on the real goal—equity for adoptees?
Do they reject substitutions, distractions, or attempts to divide and conquer that maintain state control and deflect from the goal of equality?
Do they identify who holds real power and what their conflicts of interest are?
Do they only settle for full equality for all those denied access in an inequitable manner?
Remember, as with all things in the real-world of politics and advocacy, trust your gut and disregard any marketing promise that sounds too good to be true, because it often isn’t.
Finally, if you want an example of clearly stated goals towards a policy objective, visit the Adoptee Law Center, maintained by lawyer, adoptee, and activist Gregory Luce of Minnesota. I think he is doing great work to change the national discussion with facts, provide timely and accurate information, and support adoptee rights as a human right.
If you know of a group you like, send me a note. I would love to hear from you and share that on my website for my new book.
Everyone must stop saying they are “stunned” and “shocked.” What you mean to say is that you were in a bubble and weren’t paying attention to your fellow Americans and their despair. YEARS of being neglected by both parties, the anger and the need for revenge against the system only grew. Along came a TV star they liked whose plan was to destroy both parties and tell them all “You’re fired!” Trump’s victory is no surprise. He was never a joke. Treating him as one only strengthened him. He is both a creature and a creation of the media and the media will never own that.
A lie is an allurement, a fabrication, that can be embellished into a fantasy. … Truth is cold, sober fact, not so comfortable to absorb. A lie is more palatable. … I found it far more interesting and profitable to romance than to tell the truth.
Joseph Weil, aka “The Yellow Kid” (Professional Con Artist), Robert Greene, 48 Laws of Power
To those who expressed shock and awe the day after GOP presidential candidate Donald J. Trump won the Electoral College but not the popular vote on Nov. 8, 2016, I say, what freaking country have you been living in for the last 25 years?
If you were born any time before 1980, exactly what forms of dystopian thinking had overwhelmed your senses as you observed events unfold in your country and home town–year … after year … after year?
The outcome that brought smiles in the Kremlin and so wildly alarmed the much of the world, America’s progressive coalition, and the Democratic establishment was paved decades ago by the Republican Party and its supporters.
The GOP has unabashedly and shamelessly advanced a far-right agenda that makes the United States an extreme outlier in nearly every category compared to “advanced democracies.” And now the Democratic and progressive establishment say they are shocked by the election? Are you kidding me?
So, am I outraged that Trump lost the popular vote and was still elected? Absolutely. Shocked? Hell no, and not even remotely.
The GOP Establishment Primed the Nation for Trump
Rather than an aberration, Trump was a pre-ordained messiah who walked through the giant blast hole the GOP created in our democracy over the last three decades. He also proved to be an adept and capable con artist, clever enough to employ all of the proven stratagems used by dictators throughout history, in nearly every civilization.
Anyone who has read anything about history or who has read writer Robert Greene’s 48 Laws of Power, could recognize how Trump mastered the trade craft of power in the purest Machiavellian sense. But the real-estate mogul and reality TV star also exploited an exceedingly well-fertilized landscape, plowed for a generation by his GOP predecessors and moistened by the flood of unregulated money in American politics.
Trump’s performance as a titillating, transcendent messenger was similar to demagogues of the last century. He offered racial and economic salvation, while restoring “law and order,” deporting millions of non-citizens, building a wall with Mexico, and giving hate speech wide latitude to an increasingly agitated and well-armed white and right political base.
Even the right-wing publication The Weekly Standard—a foe of Trump—predicted Trump’s meteoric success perfectly in an August 2015 article, by Jim Swift. Swift described prophetically how Trump was using all the 48 tactics of past strong men of history: “Law 27 — Play on People’s Need to Believe to Create a Cultlike Following: As Greene writes: ‘People have an overwhelming desire to believe in something. Become the focal point of such desire by offering them a cause, a new faith to follow.’ How about ‘Make America Great Again?’”
Sadly, I correctly predicted the outcome myself in the spring of 2016, when I bet a good friend a beer that Trump would defeat his likely rival, Democrat Hillary Clinton. (I have yet to drink that beer, and it will be the worst brew of my life.)
I knew he would win the “shocker” by the time he had won the South Carolina primary, where he repudiated the military legacy of the last GOP president, George W. Bush, and called the Iraq war a failure without any political consequences among evangelicals or traditional conservative voters. Here was a new creature who defied the rules–a characteristic of successful demagogues in history.
Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Youngstown) of Ohio’s industrial heartland, who is now challenging House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) for her job and pledging to reconnect with disaffected blue collar white voters, also predicted a dire outcome a month before the election. Ryan warned union members to not fall for Trump’s song and dance. “He will gut you, and he will walk over your cold dead body, and he won’t even flinch,” Ryan told a crowd of union members in Ohio in October 2016. “He’ll climb over your cold dead body and get on his helicopter.” And many of them did not listen.
Other wise people who saw this coming were filmmaker Michael Moore and commentator Van Jones—because it was so bloody obvious. They too were ignored.
In two key policy areas—guns, health care—Trump mostly used tested messages. Those soundbites and their political outcomes were already extreme before Trump became what Moore called a “human Molotov cocktail.” However, he was unexpected in several key ways.
Trump broke from the GOP orthodoxy on jobs and trade. He saw an opportunity to resonate with the disaffected working class in the industrial Midwest. He also proved to be a far better salesman than anyone in the GOP establishment. Lastly, he had a keener understanding of psychology than most of the highly respected, well-paid, and powerful individuals of the Democratic and Republican parties and the broadcast media, most of whom professed not to see the Trump tsunami coming.
Trump and Guns, Nothing New
Consider the domestic militarization of the United States since the early 1990s. GOP members of Congress and in state legislatures have worked lock step with the National Rifle Association since the passage of the The Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act in 1993.
America now has a virtually unregulated market of guns and semi-automatic weapons that are now considered inalienable rights of the majority of Republican-voting and mostly white Americans. There are now more guns than people in these United States of America. This powerful segment of the American electorate had turned their fringe ideas into mainstream GOP policy long before they voted for Trump.
These armed citizens who form the rank and file of a well-armed citizenry for years have muzzled lawmakers who might otherwise approve gun measures that put modest restrictions on the sale of weapons that kill about 33,000 Americans a year. During the campaign candidate Trump implicitly threatened to call these Americans into action against his Democratic opponent: “By the way, and if she gets the pick—if she gets the pick of her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I dunno.”
Trump merely echoed the GOP lines that had become accepted public discourse since the Columbine mass shooting in 1999. He was able to say it publicly without much rebuke because it was already normal to threaten gun violence against elected officials, putting them in “cross-hairs.” Immediately after the election, the NRA unsurprisingly announced an even more radical agenda it has been pushing, to allow concealed handgun permits to be accepted in every state and to legalize silencers—yes, silencers.
Trump’s Health Care Vision Advances the Decades-Long Agenda of the Republican Establishment
The GOP has fought doggedly for more than six decades to prevent the United States from adopting a national health care system or even insurance plan. As a result, the country is the most expensive and least efficient health provider at the population level among most developed nations.
The Affordable Care Act that squeaked through under President Barack Obama’s slim majority in Congress in 2009 was not true health reform—it was mostly an expansion of health insurance to nearly 50 million uninsured Americans—50 million!—and a first step to change the broken health insurance market. It was never meant to be the start of a national health system, like Canada’s or France’s.
But this mattered little to the nearly half of the American electorate in November, many who were lower-income and who supported a billionaire who boasted of not paying U.S. income taxes. Trump knew that. He knew facts did not matter, the same way the GOP was able to defend the monopolistic and dysfunctional health system for years while health insurance middlemen were gobbling up the nation’s economic resources. Trump simply reflected all that was said repeatedly before, like a mirror.
What about Trump’s promise to “make America great again,” and bring back those shuttered factories in depressed Midwest towns and coal production in Appalachia. Here is where Trump broke ranks with the GOP, seeing his golden opportunity. Trump had been paying attention. He and Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont were sharply aware of millions of lost manufacturing jobs and closed factories and mills since well before 1994. The establishment of both parties were not.
For the last 20 years, America has seen its manufacturing base shrink while factory jobs fled across the border to our NAFTA partners, Canada and Mexico, or overseas to China and Asia. FiveThirtyEight reports the United States “has lost more than 4.5 million manufacturing jobs since NAFTA took effect in 1994.”
That pain is visible in nearly every crumbling Midwestern city, which have repeatedly been ignored and long deemed unworthy of saving. No one, not even the Democrats, really cares about the devastated community that is now Detroit, except Detroiters, even though candidates Trump and Clinton both used it as their prop to talk about their vision for the economy. For that matter, few in Washington and less in the GOP really have cared about Youngstown, St. Louis, Akron, Cleveland, Toledo, Flint, or other industrial cities that slid into oblivion since the passage of NAFTA. The GOP, until the Trump tornado, had promoted outsourcing and trade policies that sped up the loss of manufacturing.
While Both Clinton and Trump campaigned for votes in Detroit and Michigan, as well as Ohio, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, Trump’s message about feeling the overwhelmingly visible dislocation seen everywhere in the Midwest resonated. The angry, white, dislocated Midwest blue-collar worker became a larger than life meta symbol of the Trump constituency and the key voting bloc that gave him victory.
Flint native and left-leaning independent filmmaker Michael Moore predicted the vote outcome in every single Midwestern state and national election perfectly three weeks before the election in his must-see film Michael Moore in Trumpland.
Always the savvy cultural observer, Moore described why those angry and almost all white voters would revolt and go for Trump on election day: “On November 8, you Joe Blow, Steve Blow, Bob Blow, Billy Blow, all the Blows get to go and blow up the whole goddamn system because it’s your right! Trump’s election is going to be the biggest ‘fuck you’ ever recorded in human history. And it will feel good. For a day. Eh, maybe a week, possibly a month.” Then, a few months later, they would realize they were conned, and, as he said, “It will be too late to do anything about it.” Because Moore is a Joe Blow himself, he and more importantly his insights were ignored or sidelined by the pundits and the Democratic National Committee, who had been missing the warning signs that had been festering all election, but really for the decades before.
Reality Sets in, and the Threats to American Democracy Are Real
Now that the election is over, we are all beginning to see the likely devastating outcomes. Hate crime activity is rising. White nationalists, the Klan, neo-Nazis, and others feel legitimized to speak openly of promoting fascist and extremist views.
Public officials who support Trump are even now actively talking of creating a national registry for Muslims and frankly discussing the policy of Japanese American internment camps from the 1940s. These are all echoes of Germany, after Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, or Nazi Party. It won less than a full majority of seats in the German Reichstag in 1932, and the party under Hitler and his circle managed to turn Germany into a totalitarian state that murdered at least 11 million in camps, on top of tens of other millions killed in war.
Between Nov. 9 and 14 alone, the Southern Poverty Law Center collected 437 reports of hateful intimidation and harassment. Many cases involved references to the Trump campaign or its slogans. Many had taken place at schools, where bullies and racists are feeling emboldened by the new openness in hate discourse.
I remain profoundly worried what will happen to my nation and its most vulnerable members. Many challenges lie ahead. But I completely agree with Moore’s top two action items he laid down the day after Americans woke up in a bed the GOP had been making for decades. For my part, I will, as Moore argues, support that take over of the Democratic Party and its return to the people. They have, as Moore wrote so clearly, “failed us miserably.”
It will be up to the party itself to see if it takes action on item No. 2 on Moore’s list—so far, they have not. If you have not read that list, here it that item: “Fire all pundits, predictors, pollsters and anyone else in the media who had a narrative they wouldn’t let go of and refused to listen to or acknowledge what was really going on. Those same bloviators will now tell us we must ‘heal the divide’ and ‘come together.’ They will pull more hooey like that out of their ass in the days to come. Turn them off.”
And what is next? Many from President Barack Obama down to the thousands of street protesters after the election see the next four years as a real fight for democracy that is now very, very much in peril. The GOP has never had more power in state capitals and Congress. A true charismatic demagogue just took power, without winning a popular vote, the way it happened in Germany in 1932. The fight has begun, and it will be bitter and costly. The stakes have never been higher since the country successfully came together and helped defeat the Axis Powers in World War II. But the fight will be for the soul and future of the country. History will judge how successful we are.
In researching material for my forthcoming book on the institution of American adoption, I have been collecting stories along with historical documentation and photos of the hospital where I was born in Detroit.
At the time of my birth, the facility was called Crittenton General Hospital. It was created by the National Florence Crittenton Mission, a group started in 1883 to serve prostitutes, fallen and vulnerable women, and women who were pregnant out of marriage. This was a social group who were exploited and scorned, and the organization sought to assist them by giving them shelter, training in remedial women’s occupations, and, if possible, the space to build new lives.
As the mission’s 1933 publication states, the organization sought to rescue “young girls, both sinned against and sinning,” and to restore “them to the world strengthened against temptation and fitted in some measure to maintain themselves by work.”
In 1933, a half century after its founding, the organization had already served half a million women. Nearly all were white, and they were cared for around the country and even Canada–from sunny Florida, to rainy Oregon, to my home state of Michigan.
The Crittenton mission was uniquely reformist in the American progressive tradition. It was also deeply faith-based. Its strong public-health orientation proved equally important. It tried to improve the health and livelihoods of vulnerable groups and took an active role in training the newly created class of professional social workers.
This combination made it a distinctly American institution. It touched the lives of generations of women who passed through its doors, and equally the children who were born either at the Crittenton homes and hospitals or cared for before and after the mothers’ pregnancies.
I am one of those persons who benefited from the organization’s original charitable mission. I was born in one of its hospitals.
But the organization’s much later and more hidden role in promoting adoption as a “solution” to out-of-wedlock pregnancies by the early 1960s had a much larger role. The solution in my case led to my relinquishment into foster care and eventual adoption. The hospital’s transformation during the boom years of American adoption occurred in the years surrounding my birth. Shortly after, in 1971, the hospital severed its ties with the national organization, ending an important chapter for an institution that played a critical role in Detroit’s social and medical history.
Preaching the gospel and saving lives
The mission began in New York City, under the guidance of businessman Charles Crittenton. A deeply evangelical man, he committed to helping one of society’s most vulnerable groups after the death of his 4-year-old daughter Florence from scarlet fever. Her demise created a deep bout of anguish. His autobiography describes how he turned to solitary prayer and saw the light, leading to his future mission. Today that mission lives on in the National Crittenton Foundation, now located in Portland, Oregon, my current home town. It is now dedicated to serving young women who are victims of violence and childhood adversity.
At its start, in 1883, Crittenton worked the streets and promoted the Christian gospel, specifically to combat prostitution and provide service to exploited women and girls. The organization’s 50-year summary notes, “In its beginning the objective of Florence Crittenton efforts was the redemption of the fallen woman, the street-walker, and the inmate of houses of prostitution. The great agency in such redemption was the simple one of religious conversion.”
The organization slowly expanded its efforts, finding champions in many U.S. cities: St. Petersburg, Detroit, Boston, Nashville, San Francisco, Phoenix, Portland, and more. By 1895 he was joined by activist Dr. Kate Waller Barrett, with whom Crittenton corresponded. She later became the only woman on the national Crittenton board, after it was incorporated by Congress in 1898.
The mission was involved in anti-prostitution efforts during the early 1900s and focussed on training that would enable women to leave prostitution. Its primary focus remained on the rescue and care of unwed mothers, providing them appropriate medical care, and their right to raise their children free from the scorn of society.
By the 1920s, Crittenton policy opposed separating a mother and child for adoption and believed that children should be kept with their birth mothers. As the mission’s 50-year history notes that promoting this policy helped to deepen the “love of the mother for her child and strengthening her desire to keep her baby.”
Motherhood was viewed as a means of reform. A Crittenton home became the place to promote both responsible motherhood and self-support. “Our girls need the influence of child-life upon them. They need to have the qualities that are essential to a strong, well-regulated character trained in them,” wrote Barrett in an undated pamphlet that described the mission’s philosophy of keeping mother and child together.
Crittenton combats the stigma of illegitimacy and helps “fallen women”
Nationally, the mission also sought to combat societal stigma for children associated with illegitimacy. By the second decade of the 20th century, publicized exposes had revealed the horrors of illegitimately born babies–the bastard children scorned by family, church, and most of society in the United States.
One highly publicized 1914 report called the Traffic in Babies by Dr. George Walker reported virtual charnel houses for unwanted, abandoned, and illegitimate children. These reportedly operated to “save” the single women from the disgrace of being unmarried mothers. The mortality rate of the relinquished bastard children was as high as 80 percent. Some doctors, nurses, midwives, clergymen, and hospital administrators actively referred the disgraced mothers who had sex out of marriage and became pregnant to these lethal, for-profit baby shops. Some hospitals even made money secretively moving the unwanted children from hospital wards to the unsanitary baby homes where most died.
Thc Crittenton mission clearly understood that the stigma of illegitimacy for out-of-wedlock babies was the driving force that demonized both mother and child. Prophetically, the mission in 1933 foretold of larger changes a half century later. The mission’s 50-year history notes: “Nothing short of a revolutionary charge in the mores of the American people will put the unmarried mother on a par, socially, with the married mother. Until such change shall be effected and there is no longer any such person as an illegitimate child, the mother without a marriage ring will continue to be looked at askance by a large proportion of the population and will suffer, even occasionally to the point of suicide, the shadow of social and family disgrace.” By the 1990s, single parenthood largely was de-stigmatized, with one in every three children in the United States being born outside of marriage.
Barrett headed the mission after Crittenton’s death in 1909. She passed away in 1925. By the 1930s, when these photographs were all taken, the organization was providing charitable service to assist those “fallen women,” in order “to restore to her, as far as possible, this most precious asset of a respected standing in society.” At this time, this still meant keeping the mother and child together.
Crittenton Home, San Francisco
Crittenton Home, E. Henry Wemme White Shiled Home, Portland
Crittenton Home, Sioux City
Crittenton Home, Nashville
Crittenton Home, Pittsburgh
Crittenton Home, St. Petersburg
(Click on each photograph to see a larger picture on a separate picture page.)
These pictures of the Florence Crittenton homes, published by the mission, reveal they projected a public image of being well-to-do. The facilities were all found in respectable areas, but had their actual mission hidden by the facade of upper-class and upper-middle-class gentility.
Well-to-do business people contributed to these charitable facilities in the cities where they operated, including my current home town of Portland. Detroit’s efforts at fund-raising, thanks to the Motor City’s new-found wealth from its booming automotive manufacturing sector, led to $700,000 to support the construction of a new hospital–a feat no others could match.
Crittenton General Hospital, the largest in the United States
The first Crittenton home in Detroit opened in 1897 over a store on what is now Broadway Avenue. The operation expanded and moved to a Victorian mansion on Brush Street, also in downtown Detroit. Within six years, it had outgrown its capacity. At any given time, the home was caring for 33 women, not counting the children, according to the mission’s published records. Thanks to the successful fund-raising efforts by the city’s wealthy to support women’s organizations, $700,000 in donations helped to secure land and build a new facility. This was meant to replace the old home, which was reportedly then in a “colored section” of the city. In 1907, the mission opened the Florence Crittenton Hospital on East Elizabeth Street. It offered inpatient and private patient care for indigent and unwed mothers. By 1922, it was offering up to 30 beds for mothers and their children.
The hospital and home on Brush street had already become established as a facility that trained new or resident obstetrician. It was certified by the board of health governing local clinics and affiliated with the Detroit College of Medicine and Surgery. By 1927, the hospital had outgrown its capacity to meet the need to serve vulnerable women.
The new Florence Crittenton Home and Hospital, as it was identified in the mission’s records, was opened in 1929 at 1554 Tuxedo Avenue, about three miles from downtown Detroit. The new facility had three wings. Two of the facility’s wings were devoted to the care of the single and pregnant women and their infants. The mission’s records from 1932 note these two wings had 115 dormitory beds, 100 cribs, 40 bassinets, and a nursery that served this ever revolving population. Special recreation rooms were devoted to caring for the infants, and the roof was used for playtime and exposing the babies to sun and air.
According to the mission’s records, the hospital supplemented its operational costs with a third wing. It offered medical care mostly to lower-income women and children and was certified by American College of Surgeons. However, the third wing was separate from the two wings for the unwed women. The public wing also focussed on maternal care and general surgery.
By 1950, the hospital had to expand yet again to meet the growing demand for services. A separate maternity home called the Florence Crittenton Maternity Home, located at 11850 Woodrow Wilson, was built and opened in 1954. It was less than half a block from the hospital, which was then calling itself Crittenton General Hospital. The hospital and maternity home were connected by a service tunnel. The home could accommodate up to 60 young women, who had semi-private rooms. The home offered them class instruction, an auditorium, a dining facility, and even a “beauty shop,” according the mission’s records.
“Every effort was made to maintain a homelike atmosphere for the patient,” according to the official records. In reality, the young women were cut off from family and friends and faced with one of the most momentous decisions of their lives. In many cases, they would be pressured by a social workers, maternity staff, and medical professionals to relinquish their infant children to adoption.
Crittenton General Hospital was the largest of all Crittenton facilities in the country in the 1950s. Crittenton maternity homes–and in the case of cities like Boston and Detroit, combined Crittenton homes and hospitals–had become way stations. Pregnant women from their teens to their early to mid-20s stayed out the last days, weeks, or months of their pregnancy.
Meanwhile the hospital was reorganized after the home had opened. Only one floor of one wing was reserved for “unwed mothers,” like my birth mother. These single women mostly stayed at the maternity home next door. I was born in that wing dedicated to single women, most of whom would never see their children again. There was also a nursery to care for babies. The rest of the hospital’s 194 beds provided private hospital care, including obstetrics, surgery, and pediatric services.
The hospital also continued to be a training facility for residents, from the University of Michigan and Harper Hospital. In my case, the obstetrician who delivered me was completing a residency. He came from overseas, like many other doctors who arrived in the United States and were employed to serve low-income and high-needs patients in inner-urban and rural hospitals. When I contacted him for an interview, he told me how the hospital provided basic maternal services but also doubled as a residence to single and pregnant women, who lived next door at the home. He remembered the many “girls,” as he called those young, pregnant boarders. He suggested they worked in the facility, likely to pay part of their expenses.
In many cases by the 1960s, those women who stayed at Crittenton homes and hospitals were relinquishing their children to adoption agencies, at the urging of social workers, family, faith-based groups, churches, and the systems that were created to address out-of-wedlock marriage and illegitimate children. This marked a radical change from the original Crittenton mission to keep mothers and children together. This coincided with societal change that led to hundreds of thousands of unplanned pregnancies and the American social engineering experiment that promoted adoption as “the best solution” to both restore fallen women and find homes for the estimated 2.4 million illegitimately born babies placed for adoption from 1951 through 1973, the year of the landmark Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion in the United States.
One Crittenton center, in Sioux City, Iowa, claims that 98 percent of Crittenton babies were given up for adoption after World War II. (To learn more about how maternity homes functioned in the era of adoption shame and secrecy from the 1950s through 1973, read Anne Fessler’s The Girls Who Went Away.)
Crittenton’s legacy serving single, pregnant women disappears from history
A couple of years after I was born, the Crittenton hospital had moved from its inner-city Detroit environs to suburban Detroit, in Rochester. It became known as Crittenton Hospital Rochester. This came immediately after deadly race riots in 1967 that shook the city and left 43 dead and burned more than 1,000 buildings. Detroit was beginning a five-decade-long decay as a once great American city to one that has seen its population fall from 1.8 million souls in 1950 to less than 700,000 as of 2015.
The city’s declining population and expenditures made the Crittenton General Hospital in Detroit too expensive to operate. Occupancy dropped in half by 1973. The Detroit hospital permanently shuttered its doors on March 22, 1974. At the time, I was still a young boy in the St. Louis area. I was completely oblivious to my true origins as a Detroit adoptee who was born and then surrendered into the status of foster child at one of the nation’s preeminent maternal care facilities that promoted adoption. Only decades later I finally pieced together my life and discovered that I literally arrived into the world at the center of the American Adoption experience and experiment.
In 1975, the facility that served as the starting place in life for a generation of adoptees was demolished. The home remained open, run by the Henry Ford Hospital. Though Crittenton General Hospital was reduced to rubble and built over, its ghosts linger in the memory of thousands who were born there or who gave birth there. The former locations today of the hospital and home look more like a war zone, due to Detroit’s struggles to address economic decline and blight.
The suburban hospital that fled from the Motor City is now called Crittenton Hospital Medical Center. The facility’s current web site shows no record how the former and original Detroit facility once served a critical societal and local need helping vulnerable women and children.
Throughout August 2016, I have reached out with multiple emails and phone calls to the hospital in and its communications staff. I have not received any answer to many questions I submitted concerning the hospital’s older records about its service to those woman and adoptees like myself. I did receive some copies of official of pages from an official National Florence Crittention Mission commemorative book, but no answers concerning the number of births and adoptions that were performed at the hospital. I was told in one curt email reply, “Unfortunately we have no historian on staff, however, the website does have a brief description of our history. … Good luck with your endeavor.” Those birth and adoption records may not be available, or the hospital may be intentionally choosing not to draw attention to its former mission serving single, pregnant women and their bastard babies, like me.
The hospital in 2015 reportedly was bought by the St. Louis-based Ascension Health, a Catholic-run care system. It seems far from coincidental that a Catholic-run medical system would downplay or even omit critical historical information how one of its facilities had dedicated decades of service to those who got pregnant out of marriage and paid the terrible price that many organizations, including America’s many Christian faiths and institutions, exacted on those woman and their children. As an adoptee, I find this deeply saddening and at the same time no surprise at all.
It appears the shame and stigma of illegitimacy that the original founders of the mission sought so hard to overcome have not gone away at all in 2016. I doubt any of the tens of thousands of Crittenton babies like myself are surprised.
This article was first published on Sept. 3, 2016. It was last updated on Sept. 13, 2016, after I found additional original source material outlining the history of the Crittenton mission in Detroit. I have found two different names for the hospital of my birth: Crittenton General Hospital and Detroit Crittenton Hospital. Because of this inconsistency in officials records, I have updated this blog and will use the former, which is cited more frequently.
Ed. Note, July 16, 2016: See update below regarding the city deciding not to adjust the water’s pH to address corrosion/lead and water issues.
On June 5, 2016, I wrote a letter to Portland Mayor Charlie Hales and Commissioner Nick Fish, head of the Portland Water Bureau, asking for some leadership. Right now, it appears Portland’s management of its critically important drinking water system is now being called into question, and rightly so. If you have not heard, the city’s schools are in a tailspin because kids and families were not properly advised of unsafe levels of lead in drinking water at two schools, for weeks. Soon after, all drinking water was shut off at all schools until fixes are made, and parents have called for the immediate resignation of Portland Public Schools Superintendent Carole Smith. This has since grown into a larger crisis impacting school systems dependent on the city’s water.
The actions at the schools and in our water system impact the entire community. While I am not alarmist by lead level readings in parts per billion, and I deeply worried that leadership is lacking and ideas that undermine public health are now being embraced in the decision-making culture of our schools and our local government. This matters, because nothing is more critical to public health than clean drinking water. And when trust is eroded, the public will not support public health with public money, which is how we ensure public health for all.
COPY OF LETTER SENT:
Dear Mayor Hales and Commissioner Fish: I work on many issues for my job, including educating the public about water. I love informing people how amazing our country’s drinking water systems are in promoting public health. So I feel passionately about the topic and appreciate all the work all of our water purveyors do daily, without much thanks they deserve, all the time. And my thanks are extended to the staff at the Portland Water Bureau. They keep us healthy, 365 days a year.
For the record, I have a background in public health and spent two years promoting community water fluoridation in the Tacoma/Pierce County area. I am proud of the many proven public health measures with our water systems adopted nationally since the early 1900s have saved lives, improved human health, and lead to better overall public health. This includes fluoridation and chlorination.
I am writing both of you now because I am becoming alarmed as a resident of the city, who is waiting for the outcome of a lead/water test at his home, of a “philosophy” expressed by some of our most important leaders regarding how we should provide clean, healthy drinking water–the greatest public health intervention we have for our community.
It appears as a city may have been taken badly off the rails by perhaps improper cost-based decisions and philosophically-based decisions over a long period of time.
OPB reported on June 3 that the U.S. EPA has become alarmed by the city’s decisions: “The manager, Marie Jennings, was concerned that the Portland Water Bureau isn’t doing enough to minimize the amount of lead at taps in Portland. She wrote that the EPA’s regional administrator, Dennis McLerran, had ‘heightened concerns about drinking water quality, including the [Portland Water Bureau’s] implementation under the Lead and Copper Rule.'”
We also, as a city, do not appear to be promoting best practices because of the vocal “natural-health,” vaccination-denying minority who don’t understand public health and whose sometimes radical views now threaten our kids, and everyone else in many areas. The consequences were very harmful with the public vote on water fluoridation. Continuing stories on how the city’s and its schools’ lead and water protocols are handled have me growing more concerned the more I learn about the many actions taken by the city dating back to the 1990s.
So, for the record, I WANT treated water. I think we can all agree there is NO SUCH THING as pure water. All water has minerals and chemicals that are adjusted to optimize public heath. Give me my chlorine/chloramines, please. I love that taste. It means I’m not going to get a water-borne illness that might kill me.
Mayor Hales, I would hope you can use your bully pulpit in the remaining few months to promote a dialogue on the benefits of healthy drinking water, including chlorination systems, one of the greatest life-savers ever adopted in this country. And please communicate using facts not fairy dust that Portland has “pure” water or that WE Portlanders “expect purity” in our drinking water. This is a very dangerous message with real consequences as we are now seeing.
We as Portlanders don’t want minimally treated water. We want optimally treated water. I want my chemicals in the water to ensure we stay healthy based on proven science. Having this message below used by our public health champions (and they are our champions) is not a best practice to promote public health. Let’s stop the nonsense about keeping our water pure. Did we learn anything from Flint?
The public’s strong preference for keeping Portland’s water source pure and natural – in open air reservoirs and free of chemical treatment – hindered efforts that would have reduced the amount of lead in drinking water.
Portland remains the largest city in the country that does not add fluoride to its water. The city finally decided to phase out its open-air reservoirs after more than a decade of debate.
“Portland residents have said pretty clearly that they want a minimal amount of treatment in their water, so that’s something that needs to be taken into account” [Scott] Bradway said.
Ed. Note: Scott Bradway is a lead hazard reduction specialist at the Portland Water Bureau.
UPDATE JULY 16, 2016:
The Oregonian published a story that addresses the concerns I raised with Mayor Hale’s and Commissioner Fish. Neither office replied to two emails I sent to their office. In the story by Oregonian reporter Brad Schmidt, it appears Portland is continuing to take a position not to address issue of the corrosive qualities of the water. This is likely in part because of a misguided view seen in the statement from Bradway that residents want minimal treatment of water. That is a false statement–we want our water treated optimally to maximize public health for everyone.
This view undermines the ability of government to promote public health and dangerously cedes public health decision making to the anti-fluoride and anti-vaccer voices that have made Portland and Oregon public health poster children for how not to promote health for all. If these views are guiding our policy-makers, this remains very disturbing and should be a great concern to anyone who practices public health in Oregon and Portland. Did anyone in Portland learn anything from the example of Flint, Michigan?
The story noted: “But Fish cautioned Portland may not simply add more chemicals to the water to reduce corrosion. Officials could explore options for ‘more robust outreach and education,’ more water testing or potentially some sort of program that helps homeowners replace lead-tainted plumbing.
“‘We think we can do better’ — Portland Commissioner Nick Fish on lead levels in drinking water.
“‘Until we’ve completed our assessment, we don’t know what’s the best option,’ Fish said.
“In August, city officials will meet with state and federal regulators to review preliminary results from a study looking at pipe corrosion within Portland’s water system. The meeting has yet to be scheduled.
Although city officials haven’t committed to making any changes to their treatment process, they have agreed to present a ‘detailed proposed schedule for selection, design, construction, and implementation’ of treatment techniques to lower lead levels, state records show.”
“Prior to World War II, there was no wide-spread and institutionalized adoption system. When children were born out of wedlock, both the babies and the mothers were considered undesirable. They bore a stigma—got little or no help. But after the war, that changed. Babies became part of a huge new adoption industry … while their unwed mothers were still shunned by society.”
“With respect to attitudes about adoption, white unmarried motherhood is no longer equated with mental disorder or an ability to recover easily from surrendering a child for adoption. A large majority of birth parents are reported to be open to or actually desire contact with adoptees. Adoptive families have come increasingly to be seen as having unique qualities and challenges. … Adoptees searching for information about or contact with their birth families have become families figures and are no longer assumed to be suffering from a mental disorder.”
One of the most under-reported societal stories of the past six decades has been how the U.S. adoption system continues to discriminate against several million adopted Americans. This legal practice is particularly ironic because the movement to make adoption records more secret from adoptees, depriving them of basic human rights, came at a time when voting rights, civil rights, gay rights, disability rights, and women’s rights were expanding for all Americans from the 1950s onward.
University of Baltimore law professor Elizabeth Samuels has documented this national trend with both clarity and meticulous detail in a series of articles she has published starting in 2001 on adoption law and privacy issues surrounding adoption.
Samuels has painstakingly documented in her authoritative study how state adoption laws evolved from the 1930s to the present and how elected state lawmakers systematically closed adoption records between the 1960s and 1990s. The change was championed by state legislatures and social service bureaucracies, with the quiet but critical involvement of the U.S. medical establishment that delivered the babies and cared for the women giving birth.
This happened without any clear evidence proving records secrecy offered benefits to mothers and children placed for adoption. The closing of records was based largely on societal views that stigmatized unwed mothers and particularly adopted children even to this day.
It is likely that many Americans still harbor deep fears and suspicions about adoptees as adults, thanks to archetypal fears of bastard babies and stigmas fueled by unrepentant mental health professionals who caused calculated harm with their pseudo-scientific branding of an adoptees’ quest for information as unhealthy.
Oddly, this movement to seal original birth certificates and birth records of adoptees through the 1990s took place as many adoptees had come of age and began organizing local, state-level, and national movements demanding a universal right to know who they were and where they came from, as found in original identity documents.
Advocates included Betty Jean Lifton, author of Twice Born: Memoirs of an Adopted Daughter (1975); Florence Fisher, author of The Search for Anna Fisher (1973), and social worker-turned adoptee rights advocate Jean Paton, author of The Adopted Break Silence (1953).
Paton, a mostly unrecognized social leader and equal rights advocate two decades ahead of her time, helped to launch a national adoptees right movement and published two books that advocated for adoptees’ rights. She suggested the creation of a mutual consent registry as early as 1949, for example, and embraced the term “bastard” in the 1970s, long before the emergence of the advocacy group Bastard Nation in the 1990s.
She wrote of her experience before states began to implement discriminatory laws: “In 1942 I had gone to the Probate Court … and looked up my first adoption paper, and saw my mother’s full name signed by her own hand. There was no rigmarole; you were allowed to see your own paper in a kindly procedure.”
When records were open to adoptees, the norm
As Samuels reports, “In the ‘40s and ‘50s, most state laws did permit adult adoptees to view birth records. But by 1960, 26 states were making both original birth records and adoption records available only by court order. Twenty other states still birth records available on demand, but over the following 30 years, all of those states but three—Alaska, Kansas and South Dakota—close records to adults adoptees.”
Samuels shows through a review of state records and recommendations from leading adoption welfare agencies from the 1930s to the 1950s that the groups most involved in handling adoptions and developing recommendations mostly agreed that adult adoptees should have access to their original birth records.
Samuels shows the original legal rationale to provide confidentiality of the birth mother and to keep her from knowing her birth parents was only to “protect adoptees and adoptive parents from the dangers of public access to personal information.”
The intent up through the end of the 1950s was never to prevent adult adoptees from accessing their original birth certificates, which had their original names prior to their adoption and later amended birth certificates with their name provided by the adoptive parents.
The most influential adoption agency of its time, the Child Welfare League of America, noted in its 1941 standards that such protection shielded adoptees “from unnecessary embarrassment in case of illegitimacy.”
In fact the U.S. Children’s Bureau, one of the major players in the development of adoption law through the mid-20th century, fully endorsed adult adoptees’ rights to know who they were, in the form of access to their original birth records, up through the late 1940s. Samuels notes one consultant for the agency defended this already established legal practice nationally, noting, “every person has a right to know who he is and who his people were.”
Samuels’ legal analysis dismantles and thoroughly destroys the predominant justification still used today that the shamed and marginalized pregnant mothers who entered into adoptions from the 1940s onward wanted to have their identities hidden from their birth children. This false narrative still survives today and still continues to allow legalized discrimination and stigmatization of these mothers and their kids.
Samuels unearthed no data or credible study that ever justified this overwhelming legal rationale. It was the view advanced by the interest groups who managed adoptions, notably the social service agencies who brokered more than 1.5 million adoptions from 1951 to 1972— the last year before abortion became legal in the United States.
“The historical record suggests that birth mothers were in fact seeking a measure of confidentiality,” writes Samuels in her October 2001 op ed published in the Washington Post in 2001. “What mothers wanted, however, was not to prevent the adoptive parents and the children they had surrendered from discovering their identities, but to prevent their communities from learning of their situations.”
When and why “secrecy” became acceptable?
Samuels’ evidence shows that the rationale by state legislatures reflected the social attitudes of their day. It is very likely lawmakers, still majority male from the 1960s to 1990s, were open to the advocacy of interest groups supportive of family ideas not grounded in any scientific research of the birth mothers or adoptees.
Samuels outlines this unproven myth of these three decades with the following main points:
Social attitudes were developing about the nature of adoption.
Adoption was increasingly being regarded as a “complete and perfect” substitute for the creation of families.
A prevailing myth gained credibility that once adoption is legalized, the newly configured family would become the “real family” and the child would be the same and feel the same as if he or she were born into that family.
From the 1940s through the 1960s, child development theories emphasized nurture over nature, and suggested that a birth parent’s purported “morality” would not be transmitted in a child’s development or future actions.
These views coincided with larger societal views that shamed unmarried women. This institutionalizing of this shame can be seen in the development of the Florence Crittenton Homes and other places that spirited away unwed and mostly white women until they gave birth to their kids. (See Anne Fessler’s study of these women, The Girls Who Went Away, for an overview of this system.)
There were also illegal operations that allowed babies to be sold or stolen, seen in the case of nearly a dozen “Gertie’s babies” in the 1950s in the American west, who were placed in the adoption black market. In Ireland up through the 1960s, the Catholic Church ran homes for “lost girls” and brokered the sale of babies from single pregnant women to American families, documented in the 2013 film Philomena. (See my story on that film and the Florence Crittenton Homes, “The American Philomena story that is also my own.”)
The adoption industrial complex
Dan Rather recently profiled America’s hidden baby delivery and placement system that put vulnerable, pregnant women in situations that sometimes led to coercive adoptions. His May 1, 2012, episode of Dan Rather Reports, called “Adopted or Abducted?” interviewed women who decades after surrendering their children now claim they were forced to put their babies up for adoption, often with the support of Catholic charities.
This large but little publicized system went beyond the Florence Crittenton Homes and similar facilities that hid young women, including my birth mother and me. The participants were parents desperate for kids, doctors, social workers, clergy, lawyers, nurses, and lawmakers passing laws that ensured the system could operate without disruption. Most believed they were doing the right thing for kids and their moms. The adoptive parents certainly were not causing harm, and offering love and a home. Adoptive families are not being criticized or questioned here for their deeds and their love.
That larger system still exists today, minus the homes for unwed mothers. One estimate puts the value of the adoption industrial complex today at $13 billion per anum.
Not including adoptive parents, I have rarely heard of a single participant in this system ever admit they believed they were wrong, even when compelling evidence has been widely reported for decades in the USA today that secrecy in the adoption system has led to lifelong frustration by adults wanting to know their kin and where they came from.
Demographics and changing social mores had a large impact in this story too. Data from the National Center for Health Statistics show a dramatic rise in “illegitimate births” during the 25-year period from 1940 to 1965.
Five years later, in 1970, these out-of wedlock births reached 398,700.
More than half were by women 15 to 19 years of age.
By the mid-1960s, close to 400 maternity homes were operating nationwide, often overcrowded. My birthmother stayed in one of these. I was born in the unwed mother’s maternity ward of Detroit’s Crittenton General Hospital, on Tuxedo Street, once affiliated with the National lorence Crittenton Mission.
Sham pseudo-science by psychologists and psychiatrists
What’s particularly shameful from this era is how it promoted women’s virtue at the expense of pregnant women and the hundreds of thousands of adoptees. Complicit in these failings are social workers and health professionals who may have meant well, but who never fully understood the impacts of their activities or never considered the long-term welfare of mothers and their kids.
Psychiatry and psychology professionals colluded in especially damaging ways. They provided a mental health framework to promote ideas that were harmful to millions of Americans whose only failing was to have a child out of marriage or be born out of marriage. (For me, the kooky theories offered from this era still call into question these professionals’ scientific credibility to this day.)
One commentary cited by Samuels of a mental health professional (Viola Barnard) from this era described an adoptee’s curiosity to find his or her identity as “tragically pathological distortions.” Barnard’s views were considered influential in the 1950s and early 1960s on adoption practices, according to Samuels.
Samuels’ review of the literature of the time shows that unmarried mothers who became pregnant were seen as mentally ill—a theory that completely ignored the failures of the legal and moral systems to hold the birth fathers accountable or to shame them equally.
A woman, a white woman in particular, who had sex was seen as a deviant or having a psychopathology. Samuels notes racist views promoted another view that it was natural or normal for less-moral African Americans to have out of wedlock births.
Barbara Melosh’s history on American adoption notes that in postwar America, women who had children out of marriage were “deemed neurotic—as manifesting a disordered femininity.” They were “bad women, their sexual transgressions exposed by pregnancy.” (See Strangers and Kin, 2002.) Even women adopting were tarred as being unfit women because of their infertility.
Anne Fessler profiled this stigma in her 2006 oral history on women before the Roe V. Wade decision who gave up children for adoption, called TheGirls Who Went Away.
In her interview with Rather on often coercive and sometimes illegal methods used to convince young women to surrender their bids for adoption, Fessler said, “In the United States between 1945 and 1973 a million and a half women surrendered children for adoption. I see that period of time as a kind of perfect storm of circumstances that led to all these surrenders. Number one, during the war and after the war there was a change in what was considered acceptable sexual behavior.”
While the men, like my respected ROTC and medical professional birth father, escaped societal scorn, women had to wear the brand of mental illness and be changed.
According to this view, reforming the mentally ill mother could occur with the lifelong separation from her birth child, which would enable the woman a chance to fulfill her desired identity as a woman by raising her own children and family. The burgeoning adoption market provided the “system” through which this idea was sustained—a two-part solution to a problem of change in society.
Unsubstantiated claims from the 1960s onward were made by defenders of closed records that adoptees or birth mothers might wish to extract revenge or extortion. Samuels even cites one instance where efforts in a court case by an adult adoptee to seek their records were denounced by an opposing attorney, who claimed the information could be used by the adoptee to “find and murder his biological parent.”
The bogeyman concept of illegitimate children, however, far precedes the U.S. adoption system and laws that govern it. Adoption laws only date to the 19th century in the United States. Ideas of birth-driven—now considered genetic—identity are historic and rooted deeply in most cultures over time.
Such children call into question property ownership, lines of familial and political succession, moral standing of parents and entire religions, and more. Each society over time has addressed these fears, often brutally for the unlucky illegitimate. Normally, the “bastards” have been ostracized, but also killed. (Please see my article on the demonization of bastards.)
Parenting literature from the 1970s also was awash in guidance to adopted parents how to tell the children they adopted about their origins. But the so-called psychological professionals counseled that any adopted child who sought out their origins was the acting out of fantasy, not one of a human’s most innate desires, documented in nearly all religions and myths as an essential and archetypal human need. (See my article on this archetype and myth.)
The sociologist Katherine Wegar, who has studied the issue of adoptees’ rights and their quests for their birth documentation, suggests that searching for genetic identity is “generally regarded and experienced as an important part of a person’s identity, perhaps even as an archetypal yearning.” Wegar concludes adoptees continued to suffer from societal discrimination that they are inferior to non-adopted persons.
Accepted discrimination, so long as you are adopted or a birth parent
The stigma of adoption was also branded on all adoptees by these prevailing norms from the 1960s onward. These were reinforced by a network of increasingly discriminatory state laws that treated adult adoptees separately, with lesser rights than all other U.S. citizens. Laws were passed in states that blocked adoptees from ever inheriting any property or wealth from natural parents. (Samuels cites the presence of such discrimination in 2001 of slightly less than half of all states preventing such inheritance.)
Author Florence Fisher wrote of her efforts in 1951 to find her birth parents, and the lawyer who arranged the process told her, “You have right to any information whatsoever. You were adopted legally … . You had no other parents.” Author Betty Jay Lifton was told by her psychiatrist she had consulted about her search in the mid-1950s, “Your need to look for your mother is neurotic. You are rationalizing why you must know who your real ‘real’ parent, as you call them, are.”
This was the overwhelming societal attitude I encountered starting in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, when I began to openly discussing my adoption as a young person.
During this dark period of lawmaking that closed adoption records one by one in most states, I began my own long, expensive, and ultimately successful search for my biological parents, my family medical background, and my collective family history. This is information that I am entitled to as a human right, though most states had made that right illegal.
During that search, I was told I was being cruel to my adoptive family. I was told I had “issues” that had not been resolved in my infancy or childhood. I was mocked and laughed at by people when I explained I had a German name, but was not German. I was told I was mentally unhealthy. The only people who seemed to give a damn were adoptees.
As Samuels shows, “widespread and entrenched social attitudes about secrecy in adoption” contributed to the closing of birth records to adult adoptees and birth mothers from 1960 to 1990. This was despite the social revolution of the era that was attacking the false adoption secrecy model and challenging the false narrative that adoption provided a perfect replacement to childbirth for families who could not produce children.
Samuels suggests that as single-parent homes among white families became more widespread, unmarried motherhood “was no longer equated with mental illness.” Adoptive families were finally seen as having challenges and qualities, grounded in peer-reviewed studies of outcomes of adoptees and their families.
Many birth parents were found to be open to being contacted. Thanks to the growing proliferation of stories about adoptees’ lack of rights, discrimination by states and agencies against them, and the emergence of a national movement, adoptees’ quests for identify information became less stigmatized. “Adoptees searching for information about or contact with their birth families became familiar figures, no longer assumed to be suffering from mental disorders,” says Samuels.
Samuels also cites arguments circulating in legal and psychological communities that adoptees should be given access to their rightful identity information because denial causes “psychological impairment.”
This idea is fundamentally flawed because it justifies the continued stereotyping of adoptees as mentally harmed, not as persons who are healthy by seeking information and who are doing what should be considered human and utterly normal.
Why state lawmakers ignore evidence and disregard adoptees and birth mothers
Despite changing societal views, states continued to double down and continued to close records.
I think this happened because the state legislative environment has many conservative lawmakers in all states. Many of these lawmakers are sympathetic to adoptions as the “solution” to abortion (it is not). I also believe that this political environment is overly receptive to the Christian piety myth of rebirth through adoption that mirrors a conservative Christian notion of being “born again” (being adopted is not being born again, period).
Finally state lawmaking settings rarely rely on evidence alone to pass laws. I have seen on countless occasions when I worked in the Washington State Legislature for two years how single stories carry equal weight to massive evidence contradicting those outlier stories. In such a setting, the views of just one birth mother can be given equal weight of extensive and large bodies of scientific evidence that provide birth mothers and adoptees want to have rights they once had restored.
Samuels argues that laws from the 1970s on failed to ever acknowledge records for adoptees were once open. “It was as if there had never been periods of time in many states, only recently concluded in some and still ongoing in others, during which adult adoptees had legal access to their birth records.”
Evidence from many researchers continues to show adoption secrecy is rejected by the principal actors in adoption: birth parents and their children placed for adoption. Samuels says studies as far back as 1989 showed that “almost ninety percent of birth mothers studied favored being contacted on behalf of their surrendered children.”
Samuels reported in 2001 that:
In state sanctioned intermediary programs (where a third party is a bridge contact between adoptees and birth parents [birth mothers]), 95% of the parents are open to contact.
Hawaii reported that the most typical reaction of their state-run system is one of “great joy, crying, and, “This is the call I’ve been waiting for.”
New Jersey reported that 95 percent of 350 living birth family members contacted in a four-year period wanted contact if adoptees requested it.
More recent data published by the Donaldson Adoption Institute suggests that there is overwhelming support among adoptees, adoptive parents, and birth parents to allow for open records, completely undermining arguments from secrecy proponents.
Failures of intermediaries and registries and the power of a powerless bureaucrat
In some states, such as Michigan, some adoptees and birth mothers can use an approved intermediary and others registries to request original birth records and find biological families. Others cannot simply on the basis of a person’s birth year. I fall into the period of births that closes records, except under strict conditions that require a birth mother to sign a legal release form, reviewed by bureaucrat who makes decisions that they likely have no training to understand.
I also believe a major issue not discussed in adoption research is simply the love of absolute power that mostly powerless bureaucrats and social workers have over adoptees searching for records. A bureaucrat’s imperative is to say “no,” as history shows time and again in a classic Weberian sense of how bureaucracies wield power.
In April 1989 in Detroit, I met a social worker with the Lutheran Child and Family Services and asked for my records and birth certificate. She politely refused to help me. She had the power, it was not “legal,” and she offered no help.
Two days later, after I had found my birth mother with some pretty impressive gumshoe detective work, I returned to the same social worker with a signed statement by my birth mother asking to release my information. The social worker finally released documents about my birth with my original birth name, except my birth certificate.
That type of life-changing power held by mostly lower-level practitioners is intoxicating, and bureaucrats seldom relinquish power once they have seized it. The law is the artifice used to justify it.
Registries and intermediaries in states also support the continuation of restricted access to records for hundreds of thousands of adoptees. They create unnecessary barriers to both birth parents and their kids under an unjustified notion that equal rights, namely, access to birth records, is a conditional right only the state can control.
Were such practices applied to anyone beyond adoptees and birth mothers, the media and advocacy groups would be lambasting state-approved registries and intermediary systems as a form of legal discrimination.
These methods still support a system that is not rooted in science or research, but one that emerged mainly through custom and tradition and the desire of Christian lawmakers to promote adoption alternatives to birth control (my own view of the political landscape). Restrictions also exhibit a raw expression of power by states and their bureaucracies. These methods legitimize the power of a state to control individual rights that most people assume are natural at birth.
With regards to the passive and active registries, Samuels concludes rightly they are “ineffective, demean adult adoptees, and do not remedy the fundamental denial of adoptees’ rights to the kind of basic information about oneself that is available to all other persons.”
Admitting wrongs and changing laws will make a difference
As an adult adoptee, I am grateful for the work of pioneers like Lifton, Fisher, and Paton, who were prophets in the wilderness and who identified injustice and clear wrongs. I remain grateful that stories continue to be published on adoptees finding birth family, and vice versa, as a means of keeping the legal discrimination front and center in the news.
Having football heroes like Tim Green and singing icon and former birth mother Joni Mitchell have their personal stories be known to the public helps build awareness of the hidden and ongoing pattern of legalized secrecy that provides no clear benefit to society or those most involved. They humanize the issue.
However, the “compelling human-interest story” that inspires “myriad novels, plays, and movies,” as Wegar calls it, should not be the means to correct past wrongs and to extend equal rights to adoptees.
The language of civil rights, that was broadened to include the rights of gays persons seeking to marry legally and have the same benefits under the law, now needs to be considered in the context of those born into a system in which their rights were never fully considered.
In fact adoptees are doing that with a national MoveOn.org petition asking for the Obama administration to open closed birth records with an executive order, and they are planning to hold a national rally in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 23 and 24, 2016, demanding equal treatment under the law by demanding open records.
As Samuels shows, anonymity rights concocted by mostly male run legislatures, with no recorded evidence submitted on their negative impacts on adopted persons, never existed in practice when the prevailing legal interpretations of the time claimed they did. Myth became truth, in other words.
I hope that the evidence that moves society is more through the studies Samuels cited and books like those written by Barbara Melosh, which are also turned into moving stories.
Evidence exists in other developed countries with a long record of using adoption (England, Scotland, Israel) that there have not been dire consequences for sharing birth identity documentation. Scotland has had open records since 1930, and England and Wales since 1975, both of which saw the benefits to the Scottish legal model that worked.
A useful model to follow is how the Australian Government has reviewed past abuses and harms caused by adoption to birth mothers, their families, and their kids. The government released an extensively researched 2010 report called the Impact of past adoption practices: Summary of key issues from Australian research, which focused on abusive practices that coerced young women to surrendering kids out of marriage.
The report noted: “Contrary to the popular myth that ‘time heals all wounds,’ one theme that was fairly consistent across the different studies and methodologies reviewed here was the notion that the pain and distress of their experience of adoption did not just ‘go away’ with the passage of time.”
The report looked honestly at the country’s past and used research to come to conclusions how to correct the mistakes and acknowledge that adoption was never a perfect system. Australia took a further step when Prime Minister Julia Gillard, in 2013, apologized to the thousands of birth mothers who gave up their children for adoption in situations that amounted to coercion.
There needs to be an honest accounting nationally in the United States, grounded in rigorous reporting and science. That should include testimonials by doctors and mental health experts, and lawmakers, who greased the skids of the flawed U.S. adoption system along the way. They need to step up to the mic, say what they did, and say that we could do better now.
Then there needs to be political and legal action to make it possible for those who were adopted or who gave up children for adoption to experience legal rights other countries grant to their citizens. We will see if the rally in Washington in September 2016 makes a difference. But I doubt states will be rushing to help adoptees anytime soon by granting them all open records access.
Meanwhile, my original birth certificate, bearing my birth name of Scott Douglas Owens*, remains sealed in an office somewhere in Michigan, hidden from me as a state secret, more than a quarter century after I have found my biological families. I will continue having to accept the utter insanity of an imperfect legal system that considers this to be both moral and normal.
(*I decided in August 2009 to legally change my adopted name, Martin Rudolf Brueggemann, to Rudolf Scott Douglas Owens, combining parts of my adopted and birth name. This is a true reflection of who I am, a person born into two families, with two names.)
“All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake up in the day to find it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible.” T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom: A Triumph
I am finishing reading a fascinating biography on Thomas Edward (TE) Lawrence called Hero, by Michael Korda. It is a great study of how a 5’5’’ illegitimate son of an undistinguished, upper middle-class Englishman and Irish nanny became one of the most influential men in history.
Today Lawrence (1888-1935) remains one of the most celebrated and controversial figures of the 20th century. He was both a liberator of the Arabs against the crumbling Ottoman Empire and a sharp instrument in the militarism and diplomacy of the colonial powers—England and France—to carve up the Arab lands into pliable territories that became nation states. As time has shown, these countries had no religious and ethnic cohesion, and it now seems they may not stand the test of time.
For me, however, Lawrence was so many things. A certified hero and brilliant military tactician in guerilla war. A born leader of men. A charismatic fighter. A scholar and linguist. A consummate and tough-as-nails explorer. A great writer. A global celebrity, before there were celebrities, thanks mostly to a multimedia show after the war about his wartime exploits by the brilliant American publicist Lowell Thomas. An innovator in military strategy far ahead of his day.
Perhaps even as important as any other influence in his life, he was also a bastard—an illegitimate child at a time when such stigma had far greater stains than it does today. As a bastard myself (I was adopted), it is a link I have in common with Lawrence, as well as having visited places in the Middle East where he fought, including Aqaba, Wadi Rum, and the Sinai (all as a tourist in my case).
Winston Churchill, himself both a great World War II leader and controversial apologist for the colonial system he defended much of his life, called Lawrence “one of the greatest beings alive in this time.”
Aqaba a Feat of Imagination:
Of all his many exploits, Lawrence’s role in the Arab conquest of the port city of Aqaba, on the Red Sea, in July 1917, remains one of the singular most amazing feats of arms, logistics, and unrestrained imagination.
In 1917, when it appeared the Allies could lose the Great War, Lawrence and his band of Arab fighters travelled 600 miles on a weeks-long trek was through terrain so inhospitable that the Bedouin called it al-Houl (the Terror). The Arabs numbering 2,500 men entered Aqaba without a shot and lost just two men. Their opponents melted away. Lawrence then crossed the Sinai to Cairo to inform the new British commander-in-chief, Gen. Edmund Allenby, of this history-changing victory.
The event is the centerpiece of the 1962 epic film Lawrence of Arabia. For me, the scene that defines Lawrence and dreaming large is when he stays up all night and envisions how to change the tides of a war. In the morning, Lawrence convinces his ally, Sherif Ali, to join him with just 50 fighters, with the taunting line, “Aqaba is over there. It is only a matter of going.”
To this day, I keep a picture of that scene on my Facebook page as a reminder of acting boldly and dreaming impossible dreams.
What We Learn About Lawrence from Korda:
Korda’s depiction of Lawrence provides keen insight to the real man’s complicated life. As I read it with multiple lenses, I am impressed by many things that come through that have relevance to anyone today:
Lawrence followed a classic pattern of mastery: apprenticeship as an archaeologist with a master, multiple areas of intellectual interests, rigorous training and self-directed study, curiosity, open mind, willingness to take great risks.
Lawrence achieved military greatness by not being a soldier, but by being atypical and an anti-soldier, which was the right strategy for the right place at the right time. He did know how to shoot and use explosives too.
Throughout his life, Lawrence built and used powerful networks. This included the British intelligence-gathering for the Middle Eastern theatre, top cabinet officials in London, the Foreign Office, the Secretary of War, Arab tribal leaders, and military officers. Lawrence built his networks by leveraging the importance of what he could do for them and say to them. And vice versa.
Lawrence was supremely confident in his views, which were grounded in rigorous personal experience with first-hand encounters in the field, in dangerous situations, and with an expert understanding of multiple disciplines (cartography, language, military history, religion, and culture).
Lawrence never wasted time doing thing that were not of interest to his curiosity and imagination.
Lawrence was never afraid of pain and embraced it as a means of understanding limits he always tried to break. Great leaders have always been able to respond to and even master their pain and suffering and not be bent or broken by it.
Lawrence was a good judge of character, and understood who to align himself with in his career path–always choosing the right master, such as Gen. Allenby.
Lawrence always made his work stand out, and the quality of his work caught the eye of wise superiors, from his work analyzing the Arab revolt for his military peers in Egypt that was keenly followed to his Oxford thesis on Crusader architecture in the Middle East that opened doors to field work in the desert.
Lawrence relished the outdoors, adventure, drama, the myth of a hero’s quest, and creating links where others failed to see what he understood.
Lawrence fully understood the importance of symbols, such as the knife he bought in Arabia, the Arab dress he wore, and his physical place in a march among leaders of the revolt.
Lawrence mastered theater and stagecraft in his actions to influence opinions and motivate and inspire people in a guerilla war.
Lawrence inspired others by taking great personal sacrifices and showing he was willing to sacrifice himself for the good of the larger mission.
Lawrence never disowned his upper middle-class upbringing, and he used it to navigate his way out of some early young mistakes to positions of power afforded only to the privileged.
Lawrence realized that ideas with deep historic and religious roots are what motivate movements, not weapons and tactics alone.
Lawrence recognized the importance of storytelling and myth making, and he used all of his talents to control his story and brand.
Lawrence was a shape shifter, who could be different things to different people, but always himself.
Becoming Great on Your Own Terms:
I think one of the most telling periods of his life came after he graduated from Oxford and spent four years in the Syrian/Turkish desert at Carchemish on a dig, where he learned his craft (1911-‘14) under the auspices of Sir Leonard Woolley. (That relationship would be revived when Woolley became part of the Arab Bureau in Egypt that Lawrence was assigned to.) Lawrence used his time well on this project. This experience meant organizing projects, motivating workers, settling cultural disputes, finding friends in all ethnic groups, studying the larger political world around him, and seeing the chances this knowledge could bring.
Every one of these skills he employed later in his more active setting at war. Lawrence took what appeared to be useless skills and made them his strongest attributes that no other person in the British army had. He had made himself indispensable by following his own path.
For anyone looking for a bit of a reboot in their life, in terms of making more of a mark with their job, their relations, their purpose and meaning, I say, give Korda’s book a look on a long trip or holiday. You may find some lessons to be learned from someone who truly dreamed his life in daylight, and then died young.